14.0442 hero worship, AI and robotics

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: 10/29/00

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 442.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
             Date: Sun, 29 Oct 2000 07:04:41 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: hero worship
      From his writings it's easy to tell that Edsgar Dijkstra is an interesting
    man, and I do indeed hope that I can still wish him a long life. But I hope
    also that I'm not alone in the slight uneasiness with which I contemplate
    such books as announced in Humanist 14.0428, Dennis Shasha and Cathy
    Lazere, Out Of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer
    Scientists. It's not just that I think erecting a monument to a living
    person is premature, and that some of those monuments are likely to prove
    embarrassing later. Nor that some of the living ones who have been passed
    over by Shasha and Lazere might be just as good as candidates for secular
    sainthood. It's the hagiographical impulse that bothers me.
    Noting this impulse is relevant here because given our current set of
    cultural prejudices we tend to exercise it on scientists if not on
    disembodied science, for which see John Searle's remarks in Minds, Brains &
    Science. One of the great biographies must be Constance Reid's Hilbert (NY:
    Springer Verlag, 1996). Yet I find its great-man worshipful tone to be
    cloying as well as utterly unnecessary. It seems to me that this does no
    service nor real honour to a truly great mathematician -- because it tends
    to suggest that the person is not one of us, which conveniently releases us
    from responsibility to become what we find to admire. Having studied with a
    certifiably (and repeatedly certified) great man I am deeply familiar with
    the sense that however hard one might try for however long, one could never
    be like the admired person. Perhaps, however, great intelligence is like
    love, which comes from somewhere else and rather like a torrential river in
    flood changes the landscape utterly as it goes somewhere else -- but
    doesn't BELONG to those through whom it rips. Perhaps, as my "great man"
    once suggested, the brain is a filter for intelligence, not its source. In
    any case the intolerable sense that here is someone who one could be -- or,
    in the case of these computer scientists, mostly, here's something to
    understand -- seems a whole lot healthier an attitude than the verbal
    lighting of incense. Which, like hagiography, should be reserved for really
    special occasions.
    What fascinates about the heroes in Out Of Their Minds is, I suppose, the
    quite explicitly stated research goal of building machines like us. I take
    heart from a passing remark attributed in Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio,
    Robosapiens: Evolution of a new species (2000), to the research biologist
    James Watson (Biorobotics Lab, Case Western Reserve): "The central problem
    of collaborations between scientists and engineers is that engineers are
    supposed to produce something that works. Failure is not an option. Whereas
    we scientists are interested in understanding things. If it fails, that
    tells us something. As a matter of fact, it's much more interesting if it
    doesn't work, because that tells us what we don't know." (p. 105) Consider,
    then, the image fetched by the following link to be a kind of Pisgah-sight:
    <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/year1/concepts/brain-cell-on-a-chip.jpg> (ca.
    1984 by John Stevens and Judy Trogadis, Toronto Western Research Institute,
    Toronto, Canada, put online by permission).
    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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